Pregnancy Discrimination Rights in a Hazardous Workplace

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) was enacted to prohibit employers from treating pregnant women differently simply because of their pregnancy or some pregnancy-related condition. This includes workplace issues such as hiring, termination, compensation, work assignments, career development, benefits, and many other terms and conditions of employment. The PDA also requires employers to provide certain accommodations to pregnant employees. What are the obligations of an employer of a perceived “hazardous workplace?”

Limitations on pregnancy accommodations in the workplace

In general, pregnant employees are entitled to accommodations that will allow them to perform their normal job duties safely. For instance, an accommodation can include modifications to work schedules, elimination of marginal job functions, permission to sit or stand, the use of ergonomic office furniture, and even permission to work from home depending on the nature of the job. However, an employer is not required to accommodate a pregnant employee simply because the employee seeks to protect her unborn child.

Pregnant and working in a hazardous environment

The legal issue of whether a pregnant employee has the right to work in a hazardous environment has already been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the positive. Yet, on the other hand, there is no rule that requires employers to provide special accommodations for pregnant employees who are no longer comfortable working in a hazardous environment. In fact, in the few cases that have reached the courts, pregnant employees have been denied requested accommodations, the purpose of which was to protect their unborn children.

Armstrong v. Flowers Hospital, Inc.

One of the principal cases addressing this issue is Armstrong v. Flowers Hospital, Inc. where the employee, a nurse, brought a claim under the PDA because she was denied a reassignment. The nurse expressed her concerns about treating HIV-positive patients, which could put her fetus at risk. She went further to argue that the hospital’s policy, on the basis of which she was denied of her requested accommodation, had a disparate impact on all pregnant employees. According to her argument, the policy resulted in a “difficult choice” between keeping their jobs and protecting their children.

However, the Eleventh Circuit did not agree with the nurse in Armstrong. The court held that there are limitations on pregnant employees’ rights and employers have no duty to make alternative work available to pregnant employees. Basically, the PDA does not include any language dealing with “the right of a pregnant employee, fully able to work, to receive benefits that are different from, and arguably superior to, the benefits available to other employees.”

What choices do pregnant employees have in hazardous jobs?

Pregnant employees who face working in potentially hazardous environments essentially have three alternatives: continue working, find a different work situation with less stringent requirements, or leave that particular workforce. The court

recognized that, while this may result in a difficult choice, that choice belongs to the employee. The disparate treatment claim was also dismissed because the nurse did not establish that the hospital was treating her differently because of her pregnancy.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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